While 2016 introduced enough tragedies and embarrassments to last a decade, it did offer a slew of new viewpoints from a woman’s perspective. A fresh posse of superheroes turned superheroines blasted through poltergeists, sexists, and internet trolls to tell a story that grossed over $120 million at the box office. The story of black women’s plight, plunder, and their power found worthy narrators in the form of the Knowles sisters. And 2016’s long and tired road to the White House, when traversed by a woman, revealed the added obstacles all professional women face, even in the land of the free.
Female sexuality in particular has found fresh representation in pop music, especially when it comes to masturbation. From Nicki & Bey’s self-stimulating braggadocio to Hailee Steinfeld’s salute to self-love, women are discovering new ways not only to celebrate their bodies but also to discuss them. Now, the feminine mystique is ditching its mysteriousness in favor of acceptance and visibility, and for some that means trading coyness for confrontation. Such is the case with Ebba Tove Elsa Nilsson’s Lady Wood, her sophomore follow up as Tove Lo to her drug-riddled breakthrough, 2014’s Queen Of The Clouds. This time, the haze of those clouds parts, unveiling a sexual, dangerous, and conflicted woman underneath.
Though the album cover seems homage to Madge’s Like A Prayer, Nilsson revealed it’s actually in reference to the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. Misconceptions like this say much of the limited references and confines we place upon not just female pop stars but women in art as a whole. Rather than interpret Lady Wood’s crotch shot in conjunction with its name as tribute to another famous record about serving-the-self, many (myself included) were inclined to tie it to the allusions we see instead; yeah, she’s doing stuff similar to Madonna, but it’s also similar to the Stones, the Weeknd, and Major Lazer.
That being said, the femininity of Lady Wood still deserves discussion because of how it is detailed and deconstructed. In the same way Emma Frost proves a woman’s ability to be poised and powerful, Nilsson embodies a female both erotic and empowered. “Lonely babe stranded on the dancefloor/Look for me/I know that I’m a handful” she siren calls on “WTF”, as much invitation as intimidation. At her most confident, such as on the full-sprint title track, she’s a blunt huntress, invigorated by the chase her prey gives her: “Dirty on the inside/damaged goods but nothing but pride you give me lady wood”. The phrasing of ‘lady’ and ‘wood’ as two distinct, capitalized words elevates the female anatomy to a position of distinction that demands respect and regality, all of which Nilsson rolls out in abundance.
Self-indulgent and self-destructive, Lady Wood reads like memoirs from the subject of Robyn’s cautionary tale, “Crash & Burn Girl”, courting danger as she attracts attention. Her attempts at reaching anything close to comfort recall the twisted logic of the Weeknd: “Breaking bones to feel like I’m alive/how kids get high” she dreams aloud in the cold solitude of “Imaginary Friends”. Sounds exhausting, but she can’t stop herself, channeling the kamikaze-passion of “Bad Romance” on “True Disaster”; as her voice sinks into the chorus she too descends deeper into her vices to hit freezing lows. Amidst a pop year rife with cold snaps, Nilsson arrives at absolute zero on “Cool Girl”, a Gone Girl-inspired banger propelled by a frigid synth bass line reminiscent of the electronic, dancehall fusion of Major Lazer. Her strongest tracks are the ones most unique to her character, whose persona lies a few shades darker than today’s alt-pop stars like Lorde or Charli XCX.
Yet “Sweden’s darkest pop export” finds herself , like many artists, at the mercy of her prescribed formula; though Nilsson’s definitely sets her apart, it also cages her within a persona she sometimes cannot break. At times you wonder if Nilsson ran out of ideas, and started filling in with aggressively empty tracks like “Don’t Talk About It” that fail to address what exactly we aren’t supposed to be talking about. Furthermore, the interludes at the beginning, middle, and end feel as inane as the breaks in Queen of the Clouds, but at least she explains herself on the previous ones. Other tracks simply find her stuck in her old tropes; singing about being “under the influence” (the Wiz Khalifa assisted “Influence”) is a bit of a redundant point to make. By the record’s end she dissolves into fuckery, in that literally all the choruses are littered with more ‘fucks’ than you’d ever think a “cool girl” would be willing to give. Perhaps, you think, she’s given all that she has left in her arsenal.
Though this cache of innovations is often depleted, when utilized correctly they wield enough ingenuity to distinguish Nilsson from the rest of the pack. In fact, she is one of the few who I’ve heard seamlessly transition a track from the intimate guitar of a singer-songwriter into stadium-swallowing electronica, a feat handled easily on “Vibes”. Nearing the album’s end, she surprises further with a ride on the electro-house thumper, “Keep It Simple”, where the assuredness of Nilsson’s vocals and production belie the uncertainty of her lyrics. Secure even its insecurities, Lady Wood lines them up next to Nilsson’s strengths to form its own design, a delicate flower atop a thorny trunk with roots buried deep in permafrost. Get too close and you’ll find yourself impaled upon it, but it’s not like she never warned us. B MINUS